Voice Stress Analysis in Court: Judge Allows Videotaped Confession in Child Molestation Case
A videotaped CVSA exam and confession were allowed as evidence in a child sexual abuse case.

A videotaped CVSA exam and confession were allowed as evidence in a child sexual abuse case. Image source: Flickr user Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Locking up sex offenders who prey on children is one of the most gratifying resolutions for police officers. The key is getting a confession from the perpetrator, but even once a confession is obtained, it can be challenging to convince a judge to allow admission of the confession in court—even if the confession is elicited by truth verification technology. Many courts still refuse to accept the results of the polygraph, a technology with decades of use in the criminal justice system.

It can be even more difficult with newer technology, such as the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®), an innovative truth verification tool that measures signs of stress in the human voice. This technology is immune to countermeasures, unlike the polygraph, and the vocal changes it measures can’t be consciously manipulated by a suspect. Still, despite the CVSA’s successful track record, the courts are slow to recognize new evidence gathering methodologies or systems.

In one case, two sisters, aged nine and 12, told a therapist they had been sexually abused by their stepfather. Investigators administered a CVSA exam and the suspect confessed—all of which was captured on video. Fortunately, the California Superior Court Judge allowed admission of the truth verification exam and videotaped confession as evidence against a dangerous sexual predator.

Gathering Victim Statements

According to The National Center for Victims of Crime, many cases of child sexual abuse go unreported. It is difficult to compile comprehensive data, but U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau statistics from 2010 showed 9.2 percent of victimized children were sexually assaulted. Approximately 60 percent of children are sexually abused by someone they know—a family member, a friend of the family, or another adult in their circle.

In the California case, the therapist who spoke to the two girls notified the Chula Vista (California) Police Department, and the investigation began. The two girls and their 11-year-old brother were taken to the hospital, where all three told stories of sexual abuse. When children are victims of a crime, especially a sex crime, the goal is to cause the least amount of distress. Interviews with children must be conducted with sensitivity in order to make them feel safe.

A professional who has experience working with abused children should also be consulted, so the Family Protection Unit (F.P.U.) became involved. They worked with the Vista Chula police to develop evidence, but much of it hinged on a confession from the perpetrator. The F.P.U. obtained enough information from the children to make an arrest, and the children’s stepfather was brought in for questioning.

Detective Sergeant J. Stires of the Violent Crimes Unit took on the task of interviewing the suspect. The man (whose name is not disclosed to protect the children’s identity) denied the allegations. Stires was also a certified CVSA Examiner, so he offered the stepfather the chance to validate his claims of innocence by taking a CVSA exam.  

Administering a CVSA Exam

The CVSA’s accuracy has been scientifically proven, not just in the laboratory, but also in long-term field studies. In one major study, the CVSA detected stress in 92 percent of cases, and 96.4 percent of those subjects later made e self-incriminating confessions. Using only a microphone, the suspect is asked a series of carefully planned relevant, irrelevant questions, and control questions. Relevant questions are “yes or no” queries related specifically to the crime. In a case like this, a relevant question might be something like, “Did you touch this child inappropriately?” Irrelevant questions are non-stressful, such as, “Is today Tuesday?” Control questions are directed lies used to help detect deception and may include queries, such as, “Have you ever driven over the posted speed limit?” Together, these questions help examiners pinpoint exact moments of deception during the suspect interview.

The CVSA exam indicated deception, and when Det. Stires showed the suspect the chart, the suspect made admissions implicating himself in the matters under investigation.  F.P.U. investigators then took over the interview and obtained a full confession. The CVSA exam and the interviews, both before and during the confession, were also videotaped as documentary evidence.

The Judge’s Ruling

There were 77 charges filed against the suspect. In court, his attorney filed a motion to suppress the confession, claiming detectives had provided an offer of leniency in exchange for a confession. The defense also showed a report by Thomas Streed, Ph.D. of Forensic Consultation International, who asserted the CVSA was used as a “stress inducing tool to compel.” However, the claim that the CVSA causes stress is erroneous. In fact, the entire process—from the non-invasive technology itself to the rapport-building interview methodology used by CVSA Examiners—is designed to reduce situational stress in order to achieve the most accurate results. It is the polygraph, with its restrictive sensors and more aggressive Reid Technique interview style, that has been known to increase stress unnecessarily and lead to false confessions.

After reviewing the videotaped interview, CVSA examination, and resulting confession, the Superior Court Judge found no such coercion. He denied the motion to suppress while placing some limitations on Steed’s proposed testimony for the jury trial. The defense agreed that the videotape of the CVSA exam and confession be admitted into trial. The jury trial never came to pass, however, as the accused accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 18 years in state prison.

State laws vary as to the admission of any truth verification examination in court, although the CVSA has been upheld in Federal District Court, the New York Appellate Court, the Ohio Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, and in other trials across the USA. This judge deserves credit for recognizing the value of the CVSA and the videotaped confession. This ruling allowed for a quicker resolution and avoided a jury trial which would have further traumatized the children and their family.  

The police interview room has become a place where proven technology is a known and trusted asset. Recording interviews and truth verification exams protect not only the rights of the suspect but also validates the integrity of the interview process. If there is a claim of coercion or a clarification about the interview process is needed, the video can provide answers. Digital technology is transforming the entire legal landscape, but more judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers should be aware of the reliability of innovations such as the CVSA. After all, law enforcement agencies already know the value of the CVSA in clearing the innocent and prosecuting the guilty.

Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.

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